More MS news articles for May 2001

Medical Pot Bill Aims to Clarify Usage

Drugs: The legislation would form a patient registry and issue ID cards to people using marijuana to lessen their pain from illnesses.

Tuesday, May 29, 2001
By ERIC BAILEY, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO--Despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking a blow to the medical marijuana movement, legislation is in the works to establish a statewide patient registry and set limits on how much pot is enough.
Advocates of medical marijuana will meet Wednesday with lobbyists representing law enforcement and physicians to begin wrestling over details of the measure sponsored by state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara).
"You have tens of thousands of patients who have found a substance that alleviates their pain," said Bill Zimmerman of Americans for Medical Rights, the Santa Monica-based group that pushed medi-pot measures across the country. "They're not going to go away because of the Supreme Court decision."
The bill is similar to a Vasconcellos measure that stalled two years ago after police and district attorneys balked over key details.
Since then, a chorus of prosecutors and other law enforcement officials throughout California have called for statewide standards to bring clarity to an issue that has caused confusion for beat cops and led to pot patient arrests that were later overturned in the courts.
Those pleas by law officers haven't faded since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 14 on California's Proposition 215, the landmark 1996 medical marijuana initiative that spurred similar laws in eight other states.
Though the high court reaffirmed that distribution of pot is illegal under federal drug laws, many participants in the California debate say that the decision stopped well short of invalidating Proposition 215.
Instead, the court's ruling gives federal officials leeway to go after organized clubs that sell marijuana to patients. As a practical matter, they say, federal drug agents lack the manpower to arrest or bring charges against the thousands of patients now using marijuana as medicine. Meanwhile, juries in California's state courts have demonstrated a marked resistance to convicting defendants who mount a credible medical marijuana defense.
Advocates of medical marijuana have in recent months launched a political offensive against prosecutors in several California counties, although the first battle--a recall campaign against the district attorney in Marin County--failed miserably last Tuesday.
Vasconcellos' bill, SB 187, envisions a computer registry of pot patients that could be tapped by police officers after they apprehend a suspect claiming a medical need. Patients also would be issued identification cards that they could show to law officers.
In addition, the bill calls on state health department officials to establish levels for how much pot a qualified patient could have on hand or grow in their home for medical use.
Though that framework has been established, "the nuts and bolts of how this works" remain to be haggled out in the weeks to come, said Sue North, Vasconcellos' chief of staff.
Law enforcement officials appear poised to insist as they did two years ago that the registry be mandatory. But medical pot boosters say that requirement would be unconstitutional because it might threaten to strip unregistered patients of their legal protections in court under Proposition 215.
"The issues are real difficult," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for several law enforcement groups. "But I think everyone who is involved in the process would like to see an agreement reached."
Physicians, meanwhile, are opposed to efforts to require that doctors be listed in the registry. They fear the possibility that federal prosecutors might attempt to use the registry to track down doctors who have recommended marijuana as a medicine.
The bill also could widen a growing rift in the medical marijuana community.
Some hard-liners say that the registry program is simply a bad idea that would undermine the sweeping and open-ended spirit of Proposition 215, which was designed to ensure that no one who needs pot to cope with an illness be denied.
More moderate medi-pot boosters, such as Zimmerman, say that the program can work if enough safeguards are provided to ensure patient and physician confidentiality.
Zimmerman also would like to see state lawmakers adopt a government-sanctioned distribution system. He said the need is greater than ever because the Supreme Court ruling may prompt federal law enforcement officials to seek the closure of California's few remaining pot clubs.
"There's some jeopardy created to the supply," Zimmerman said. "We're going to push for a state distribution system to come online as soon as possible."